Several irrigators in Oregon’s Klamath Basin have appealed a ruling that upheld the shutdown of their wells for interfering with surface water rights.
According to the state judge, the Oregon Water Resources Department had “substantial evidence” that flows in the Sprague River were affected by pumping from the four wells.
Several people who own or lease the wells — Stanley and Dolores Stonier, Larry and Joan Sees and Garrett and Cameron Duncan — are now challenging that decision before the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Instead of relying on the full evidentiary record from trial, Marion County Circuit Court Judge Channing Bennett based his ruling on OWRD’s information from the time when the wells were shut down, said Sarah Liljefelt, attorney for the irrigators.
“The judge has applied the incorrect standard of review in the decision,” she said.
Layers of rock and clay divide the Sprague River from the confined aquifer into which the wells were drilled, but OWRD wrongly concluded the aquifer was sufficiently permeable to transmit water to the river, according to the irrigators.
Apart from wrongly applying a scientific model, the agency also interpreted its authority too broadly by regulating an expansive “aquifer system” — rather than just the “adjacent aquifer” to the river, as permitted by law, the plaintiffs claimed.
The irrigators asked the judge for special findings explaining his decision, but he failed to buttress his legal conclusions with adequate evidence, said Liljefelt.
“Some legal conclusions have no legal findings to support them whatsoever,” she said. “My opinion is there were a lot of errors in this decision.”
Any ruling from the Oregon Court of Appeals would have a long-reaching effect, since OWRD is likely also misapplying its authority and scientific model in similar irrigation cases, Liljefelt said.
“They’re regulating beyond their jurisdiction,” she said.
The OWRD will be working with its attorneys at the Oregon Department of Justice in responding to the appeal, as it does with all litigation, said an agency spokesperson.
Judge Bennett’s ruling was properly based on significant evidence developed at trial, said Richard Deitchman, an attorney for the Tulelake Irrigation District, which sided with OWRD in the lawsuit.
Tulelake Irrigation District will participate in the appeal process but it’s still too early to comment on the plaintiff’s specific allegations, which have yet to be officially filed, he said.
“We have to wait and see what the grounds for the appeal are,” Deitchman said.